In November, my family and I moved from a city townhouse into a suburban house-house and suddenly, it became clear to me that I was going to have to get serious about being organized about keeping everything in order. Each night it felt like I went straight from a day of work to an evening of cooking, laundry, cleaning, and then bed with no pleasure or down time in between. If I only had the right way of keeping track of my life and home, I thought, I’d have both a tidy house and time to enjoy it.
One timesuck for me has always been meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking (and, on unhappy nights, dishes). If it were up to my husband, we’d eat grilled cheese and canned soup every night, or, better yet, Soylent. I prefer to mix things up more and actually enjoy cooking from time to time, so the grocery business falls upon me, but looking up recipes, writing down the ingredients, shopping, and putting things away became time-intensive and exhausting once we’d moved from our grocery-adjacent neighborhood to the ‘burbs. But we live in the 21st century, do we not? There had to be a way to streamline this.
First, I tried the app ShopList, which I told myself would finally solve my problem of disparate grocery lists scattered throughout my phone, home, and laptop. I liked that it was simple to use, but it had its limitations. Would you believe that it is not time-saving to unlock your phone, squint at a screen, and click little check marks each time you put a potato or tub of sour cream in your cart? On top of that, a little anal-retentive part of me raged against the fact that the app didn’t instantly organize my list into categories. What’s the point of having a fancy grocery shopping app if it doesn’t know that “pears” is in “produce” and not “other”?
Fed up with the grocery store, I tried Peapod, a grocery service that gave me free delivery for my first order. I really enjoyed the part where I didn’t have to leave the house or interact with other humans (whose grocery carts I barely missed while looking at my iPhone), but Peapod has its own issues. Aside from the eventual cost of delivery, plus tip, you don’t always get what you order. Twice I’ve had to call the service to complain about rotted produce and twice I received my delivery along with an announcement that they didn’t have something I ordered in stock. Granted, the service is fast and friendly when it comes to crediting you back on missing or bad items, but, still—I didn’t have stuff I needed. At least when I’m at the store I know if I have to make an additional stop to get something I missed.
So I was back at square one, feeling like I was wasting loads of time and energy. Far from the organized Real Simple working mother of my dreams, I was exhausted, irritable, and mad at myself for not being able to find the right system or app to make it all easier (or better yet: go away.) Maybe I needed to try InstaCart.
Of course, I’m not alone in failing to get it together. Emily Gray Tedrowe, a writer and mother of two in Chicago, has tried different methods of streamlining her life. She found herself pulled into a Facebook group that encouraged users to purge their houses of 50 bags of unwanted stuff in 50 days. “I didn’t get very far. Maybe four days? And then I started cheating by counting the garbage that I’d regularly take out as one of my bags.” Now, she’s contemplating using the “KonMari” method of keeping her house tidy, but is feeling cynical. “I dream about whittling down to the essentials, or, what Marie Kondo says, things that ‘spark joy.'” However, Tedrowe has run into the problem of what to do with all her books, which spark joy (not to mention are a professional necessity) but also spark tons of clutter. How do you KonMari your way out of that one?
The whole idea of “joy,” (or “gratefulness” or “mindfulness”) is often tied into maintaining a nice 21st-century home. Because while you’re picking up after your kid, trying to remember to use your produce before it goes bad, folding everyone’s socks, you’re also supposed to count your blessings. And maybe that’s where our intentions misalign with reality.
“Housework is housework. It’s never going to be fun,” says Andrew Mellen, a professional organizer who has lent expertise to HGTV, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Nate Berkus Show, and Real Simple. He adds that “fun” could just be redefined as a lack of having something nag at you. This harsh truth is strangely reassuring, because sometimes I think that with the right system, one won’t mind cleaning up. Maybe it’s best to give up that idea before spending money on charming linen-lined wicker laundry baskets from Pottery Barn.
But with all the books and apps and experts out there, surely there must be some systems that work better than others, right? Even for people who are already organized, that idea that there is something better out there can cause anxiety. “I’ve tried a ton of things: apps for meal planning, apps for family organization, paper planners, online planners, and white boards,” says Lauren Exnicios, a Seattle attorney and mother of two, who has been frustrated by the amount time it often takes to invest in these “time-saving” systems. “I found things like Gathered Table and Cozi are both great ideas, but the buy-in is too high. I don’t have time to upload all my recipes or standard meals. Right now, writing it on the back of an envelope 10 minutes before I run to the store works.”
Mellen agrees that technology cannot save us from our mess. “I’ve yet to find something that works effortlessly. Once you’re on that treadmill, the OS needs to be upgraded or the app doesn’t work and the data doesn’t back up.” Aside from using a calendar, which he says is a must (and doesn’t need to be high-tech), he says there is in fact no “one true way” to stay organized. “If you want a simple house where you can find everything, you need less stuff, not more shelving units. If you want to spend less time at the grocery store, make simpler meals. If that meets your needs, then you’re done.”
It’s possible that the time we spend looking to save time is actually a big waste of time. But it makes sense: there is a reason why Real Simple is a popular magazine, why there seem to be ninety different kinds of surface cleaners at the grocery store. We live in the hopes that just the right thing or method will save us from the tedium of keeping our lives together, and once that’s done, we’ll be free to be the people we really want to be–people who don’t have to cook or clean or do laundry.